Fake Reviews Spin a Web of Deceit ; Inquiry in U.S. Exposes Illegal Touts Posting False Praise for Firms Online

By Streitfeld, David | International Herald Tribune, September 24, 2013 | Go to article overview

Fake Reviews Spin a Web of Deceit ; Inquiry in U.S. Exposes Illegal Touts Posting False Praise for Firms Online


Streitfeld, David, International Herald Tribune


New York cracked down on deceptive reviews on the Internet after an investigation turned up reputation shops operating in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Eastern Europe.

"I celebrate myself, and sing myself," wrote Walt Whitman, America's great bard of self-promotion. Nowadays, quite a few businesses are adopting that philosophy online, hiring a veritable chorus of touts to sing their nonexistent praises and lure in customers.

On Monday, New York State regulators will announce the most comprehensive crackdown to date on deceptive reviews on the Internet. Agreements have been reached with 19 companies to cease their misleading practices and pay a total of $350,000 in penalties.

The yearlong investigation encompassed companies that create fake reviews as well as the clients that buy them. Among those signing the agreements are a charter bus operator, a teeth-whitening service, a laser hair-removal chain and an adult entertainment club. Also signing are several reputation-enhancement firms that place fraudulent reviews on sites like Google, Yelp, Citysearch and Yahoo.

A false review of a restaurant may lead to a bad meal, which is disappointing. But the investigation uncovered services buying fake reviews that could do more permanent damage: dentists, lawyers, even an ultrasound clinic.

"What we've found is even worse than old-fashioned false advertising," said Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York State attorney general. "When you look at a billboard, you can tell it's a paid advertisement -- but on Yelp or Citysearch, you assume you're reading authentic consumer opinions, making this practice even more deceiving."

Investigators working for Mr. Schneiderman began by posing as the owner of a New York City yogurt shop that was the victim of unfair reviews. Could the reputation management firm gin up good reviews to drown out the naysayers?

All too often the answer was yes. The investigation revealed a web of deceit in which reviewers in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Eastern Europe produced, for as little as a dollar a rave, buckets of praise for places they had never seen.

In some cases, the reputation shops bribed their clients' customers with $50 gift certificates to write more fake reviews. They also went on review sites that criticized their own fake- review operations and wrote fake reviews denying they wrote fake reviews.

The investigation was aimed at companies based in New York State, but it will have a wider reach. "This shows that fake reviews are a legitimate target of law enforcement," said Aaron Schur, senior litigation counsel for Yelp, which has taken an aggressive approach in screening out reviews it believes to be false. Yelp recently sued a California law firm for writing fake reviews of itself.

Within recent memory, reviewing was something professionals did. The Internet changed that, letting anyone with a well-reasoned opinion or a half-baked attitude have his say. Web sites loved this content, because it was free. So consumer reviews became ever more ubiquitous -- and influential.

Reviews persuade people to try a new resort or shun an old restaurant. They sell books and the devices the books are read on. They influence the choice of garden tools, plumbers, high fashion and, increasingly, doctors. If you provide a service or sell a product and you are not reviewed, you might as well not exist.

In a 2011 Harvard Business School study, a researcher found that restaurants that increased their ranking on Yelp by one star raised their revenues by 5 percent to 9 percent. A 2012 Gartner study estimated that one in seven recommendations or ratings on social media sites like Facebook would soon be fake. …

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